LAUTOKA – Vanuatu coach John Philemon says he is looking for a comprehensive victory in today’s OFC Men’s Olympic Games opener against Cook Islands.
"We will show Cook Islands plenty of respect. But we won’t be holding back. We’ll be looking to get off to a good start because we’ve got New Zealand in the second match and need to take something into that one," Philemon said.
The Air Vanuatu Warriors sponsored team won’t have it all its own way with Cook Islands likely to be very well organised and equally hard-working.
But John Philemon has plenty of reason to be confident.
The U-23 squad is full of experience with players such as the mercurial Francois Sakama, Andrew Chichirua, Fenedy Masauvakalo, Rexley Tarivuti and Fiji-based Jeffry Nimanian all capped at international level in age group, O-League or Beach Soccer forms of football.
"They are all exceptionally fit players and technically very skilful. I think that the key to doing well in this tournament is the mental approach," Philemon says.
Sakama is the jewel in the crown for Vanuatu with the diminutive midfield man recently returning from a professional club in Israel.
Memories of Sakama’s blistering wonder volley from 18 yards out against Solomon Islands for the senior international team is still fresh in the memory for fans in Vanuatu.
Sakama’s ability to turn a game with a sublime peice of skill is unquestioned but there is no doubt in Philemon’s mind that his team has a shot at Beijing regardless if Sakama plays or not.
"We left players back in Port Vila that were capable of pushing for a spot in our squad. The talent back home at present is great even though we have a small population to choose from."
Michel Kaltak – a member of the Vanuatu U-20 side that struggled in New Zealand last year and son of legendary Vanuatu footballer Ivoki Kaltak – is another player viewed with a big future.
"As you can see, there is a natural strength and muscular physique to our players that is one of our key strengths.
Geoffry Lego Gete – a senior international with experience at the South Pacific Games and OFC Nations Cup/2010 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers – is another player that is expected to shine.
"Geoffry is a great leader for the team and he has plenty of experience to share with the rest of the team."
Gete’s leadership qualities will be crucial in helping this Vanuatu team gel quickly.
When asked what constitutes a successful tournament, Philemon doesn’t beat around the bush.
"I think most teams would aim to get something from its match against New Zealand and win the rest of the matches.
We are not interested in finishing second to any team. We want to go as close as possible (to qualification).
This is why getting off to a good start against Cook Islands is so important," Philemon said.
Match Day 1
OFC Men’s Olympic Football Tournament
Cook Islands vs. Vanuatu
Kick-off: 16H30hrs (Fiji Time)
* Vanuatu’s preparation for the OFC Men’s Football Tournament received a minor setback after Ricky Tari was sent home after it was revealed the player turns 24 on Sunday.
Tari whose paperwork was the subject of an administrative error will be replaced by Vanuatu U-20 international player Brian Melar. Melar is expected to arrive in Fiji in the next day or so.
"I don’t think anybody should be upset with Ricky – it was purely an administrative error," a team spokesman said at Vanuatu’s official training session yesterday.
"Ricky’s passport details were replicated by accident and when we did the official passport check, which takes place at every tournament, we noticed the problem straight away.
I feel for Ricky he is a well-liked person and player and its sad he has to leave but obviously the right thing."
* Vanuatu’s Olympic Games campaign is proudly sponsored by Air Vanuatu. The team – known back home as the Air Vanuatu Warriors – expressed its gratitude to the chief sponsors on the eve of its bid to qualify for Beijing.
"An agreement was signed with Air Vanuatu that will provide discounted flights throughout the country. When you realise there are just over 70 islands in Vanuatu you get some idea of the value to football in our country – and the gratitude of these players and the youth for Air Vanuatu’s support," a team spokesman said yesterday.